Thursday, September 08, 2016

Ordinary Women and Extraordinary Lives - themes of Day 1 of #TIFF16

Lily Gladstone in Kelly Reichardt's Certain Women
Or is that extraordinary women in ordinary lives? You decide. Kelly Reichardt's Certain Women and Terence Davies' A Quiet Passion filled out the back half of my first day of #TIFF16. Earlier in the day I also caught some of Olivier Assayas' Personal Shopper and the Dardennes' La Fille Inconnu (see below). Ordinary and extraordinary women seemed to be the common ground of all of my first-day movies. Increasingly, the first day holds an overwhelming amount of some of the strongest content of the whole fest, all lined up next to each other. The titles are mostly those which have already had international screenings at other festivals - and that's perhaps why. But it can be challenging to make decisions, especially as most of them won't have a second industry screening.

Kelly Reichardt's lyrical and poetic Certain Women was a safe bet and deeply satisfying. Since its debut at Sundance earlier this year, this film and this filmmaker (who previously brought us Wendy and Lucy and Meek's Cutoff), have been continuing to win admiration. Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart and Lily Gladstone play women who live ordinary lives in Montana, even if their own deeper gifts and skills go largely unrecognized by others. Dern and Stewart are both lawyers, though not in the same office; Williams is a businesswoman building a new house and Gladstone is a ranch hand who cares for horses. So much of this pastoral romance (not romcom genred) is about observing women at work -- and in the case of Gladstone that includes lovingly handling horses, and whisking across snowy fields on a motorized cart chased by a frantic dog. The landscape fills up the screen with mountains and snows and endless road and yet the landscape of the small town of Livingstone where most of the action takes place also feels as if it is pitted with valleys and ridges, though these are relational. A man seeks justice for himself; another man watches through the window of his modest home as the sandstone blocks of an old schoolhouse are taken away. There is an inertia and a static sensibility: lives stuck. Through which a river of quiet emotion moves, animating the town and the plains beyond. When a character falls asleep at the wheel and drifts into a snowy field, we feel not so much a sense of danger, as of a life in which the desire for passion is quietly running out of fuel. Gladstone almost steals this film, as a character whose budding desire takes her into unexpected decisions.

Cynthia Nixon and Jodhi May in Terence Davies' A Quiet Passion
The quiet passion I found in the Reichardt film was unfortunately missing from the Davies' movie with that title, although I wanted so much to like it. A portrait of the life of Emily Dickinson, I could not wait to see Davies' painterly sensibilities brought to bear on it. The cinematography is riveting: there is a scene in an opera house that is the closest one could possibly imagine to being there with its rich colour surrounded by black shadow, as if a portrait set in a daguerrotype. The camera work is breathtaking in a way only Davies can offer us, especially a shot in which we circle around a parlor room from Emily to other members of her family and return to her, finding in each face a different expression and returning to her own transformed in emotion. A time transition from the younger versions of the characters to their adult counterparts is astonishing, accomplished through the device of sitting for a photograph. While such transitions are not new, the generation of one to the other is almost unnoticeable until you realize it is a different actor now in front of us. In the end, however, the downfall of this film is its script. Forced and over-written, at times it felt as if it was almost aiming for Shakespearean. At other times, the witty banter sounded as if Joss Whedon had arrived on set. The portrayal of religion was heavy-handed and overwrought, playing into every stereotype imaginable, and the anti-religious character of Miss Buffam sounds too 2016 to be credible. Dickinson herself seems to have a love-hate relationshp with religion, but her faith remains solid: this was accomplished more by Nixon than by the screenplay which had her in defiance one moment and offering blessings in another. Jennifer Ehle is luminous, but she always is; Keith Carradine makes the Mr. Dickinson character affably strict - but he too is a victim of the writing. Jodhi May is lovely in her tiny role --- I still remember her debut in A World Apart, long ago. Ultimately however, I left disappointed. What I carry out of this day is La Fille Inconnu (The Unknown Girl) and Kelly Reichardt's Certain Women of Montana. Some time I will go back and see all of Personal Shopper --- maybe when it's on DVD and I can watch it in my jammies in bed! A great first day!


Kristen Stewart in Olivier Assayas' Personal Shopper
Getting to TIFF, in every way one might think of, has been challenging this year, but I'm here, and the first day is well underway. My PCS-brain struggles against the constant noise and colour but once in the cinema, the hush is like that of a temple and I feel my whole soul relax in the spirit of having 'arrived'. Traffic and the TIFF Industry line-ups behind me, I quietly slipped into my first film of the festival, Olivier Assayas' Personal Shopper. I only stayed a half hour, but that's not a critique. Even thirty minutes was enough to be impressed by an immersion into world. As usual with Assayas, there are layers established immediately, and artists influencing and affecting each other. Early on, we are introduced through Maureen (Kristen Stewart)'s obsession with her, to the work of Hilma af Klint, a Swedish mystic and spiritualist who painted messages she received from those in another realm. We follow Maureen through the streets and subways of Paris as she watches documentaries on youtube and becomes fascinated with how the artist interpreted the messages she received. She herself is waiting to hear from her deceased twin brother, also a medium. Throughout the first half hour we are following Maureen, almost as if we are her brother Louis, and in the very first sequence, we do so through a darkened empty estate house somewhere in France where Maureen has gone to try to connect with him. As usual with Assayas, there are screenplay challenges to one's sense of believability but he often manages to allow us to be fully immersed in his vision before we become aware. But here, the sequence is electric. Assayas seems to know to keep a wide distance from Stewart, as if it to tell us from the onset that her entire body will tell us the story, not just her face (a sign of respect in my view) and that the whole of her is in fact invested in the world we are in. Even in a half hour there was no missing the precise articulation of Stewart in this role. Like Rooney Mara, also in more than one film in this fest, her intuitive acting style reveals problems in the writing because the style is so naturalized, so organic. Chekhov would love them. Stewart's face, when the camera goes there, seems to reveal a million layers at once, including the deep loneliness and loss that is motivating her character. My overall guess is that the performance may be even stronger than the film (which was certainly true in the case of Clouds of Sils Maria). But I had to leave because I could see where it was going and I just wasn't up for that level of fear and spookiness. But I hope others see it and tell me more about it.

Adèle Haenel in the Dardennes' La Fille Inconnu
Instead I went in to see the re-edited version of Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardennes' La Fille Inconnu (The Unknown Girl). These master filmmakers released a cut for Cannes that met with mixed response. I wasn't there so I don't know, but I can tell you that what they have now made is deeply moving. A doctor (played by Adèle Haenel) refuses to open her door to a woman in need because it is an hour after closing time. The woman is later found dead. For the rest of the film, this heavy weight on the doctor's heart pushes her into amateur sleuthing so that some sense of the woman's real identity can be determined (because there is no identification, she has been buried in an unmarked grave). As the doctor lives into her obsession, we see her treating patients, witness what a fine doctor she is, and the devotion of those patients who always want to feed her and whose food she eats. My faith and film instincts see a 'eucharistic' motif here. The woman's body is found initially in a construction site called "the potter's field" (the biblical place of burying those who were poor or who came to bad ends). As Dr. Jenny Davin tries to put the pieces together, she never loses her inherent goodness, even though her weakness and her pride/vanity are the reason why the whole problem is set in motion. When confessions come, they are offered to her as if she were a priest and her medical vocational instincts are similar: she remains faithful to her promises to each person to the very end. Haenel is exquisitely subdued, allowing us to feel with her, instead of just react to her emotion as an actor. 

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